A next-generation outlaw, shaking up country music with just a guitar

Jamey Johnson’s new double album, The Guitar Song, is separated into conceptual halves. The first disc, dubbed “Black,” reverberates with the damage caused by broken relationships and broken promises, then the “White” disc moves past loneliness and loss towards feelings of redemption and forgiveness. But ask the soft-spoken singer and songwriter about the album’s dual nature, and he rejects any attempt at analysis. “I really don’t think about the concept of albums as much as I do recording sessions and what happens each time we go in the studio,” he says. “I just go in and cut songs that reflect what’s going on in my life, and that I think will mean something to the people out there.”

Johnson’s songs do just that, for a large and growing audience—but it wasn’t always this way. His marriage and his previous record deal both dissolved in 2006, and a lingering reputation as a hell-raiser caused Music Row’s interest to wane. In the aftermath, the artist turned into a recluse. He emerged triumphant with 2008’s That Lonesome Song, which marked his transformation into traditional country’s new hope. The album received a slew of accolades upon its release, selling gold and launching the Top 10 country hit “In Color.”

Johnson adds considerably to his already rich catalog of original tunes with The Guitar Song, even as he continues to pay homage to his traditional country forbears. He offers updated versions of country classics by Vern Gosdin, Kris Kristofferson and Mel Tillis on the new effort, just as That Lonesome Song included explicit nods to heroes like Waylon Jennings. But Johnson seems uncomfortable being mentioned in the same breath as his idols, artists who—like him—succeeded commercially while challenging Nashville conventions. “It’s like shining a light on a snake in the desert,” he says with a laugh. “You point that light and the snake starts wriggling around and it shows its real self. Those guys were just shining a light on the truth. I don’t think they meant to cause trouble at all. They were just telling it how it really was. People respond to that.”

With The Guitar Song complete, Johnson is ready to hit the stage. “That was always my goal, to go around and be able to sing country music out on the road,” he says. “It’s not about being in the studio. You have to get out there and speak directly to the people. My fans are a real good group of folks, real committed.”

–Blake Boldt

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